This piece first appeared in Open Africa, a custom digital publication by Ornico that features interviews, insights and business lessons from some of Africa’s leading CEOs, innovators and decision makers.
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It has been 25 years since a man called Pepe Marais got a graphic design diploma from the Ruth Prowse School of Art, and walked into the offices of a Cape-based agency, Tholet Sievers & Associates, looking for a job. Marais was hired on the spot, thanks to his pun-filled portfolio.
Cape Town was both good and bad to the advertising man, who now lives in Jozi. Marais almost drowned while swimming in the Cape ocean, but was saved by a man called Gareth Leck, who went on to become his business partner. The agency they formed, Joe Public — now Joe Public United — is an award-winning full service agency that boasts Steers, Nedbank, SAB and Jet among its clients.
Marais is the chief creative officer of Joe Public United. He is also the co-founder and chairman of One School at a Time. “I live for creativity, and I have a deep belief that creativity is the most valuable asset in life. At my core, I exist for the growth of people, my own included,” he says.
One School at a Time is a project that aims “to create an educational system that’s a shining example to the world.” It has partnered with Forte High School with the goal of a 100% pass rate, with 60% university exemption. The next school to benefit from the project will be Itirele-Zenzele Comprehensive School.
With the agency approaching its 21st year of existence, it is entering a new phase, pitching for bigger clients and expanding into Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. This expansion is not being done through acquisition but rather by funding startups and creating strategic alliances with local, small, like-minded agencies.
Open Africa got Marais to sit still for a few minutes to answer some pertinent (and impertinent) questions.
#OpenAfricaMag: You’ve had a very successful relationship with Gareth Leck — some 20 years. What’s the secret to successful business relationships?
If you look at any successful relationship, there are always ups and downs. A business partnership is the closest thing to a real marriage and, if you look at any lasting marriage, it takes a lot of hard work. It takes ongoing open communication. It takes honesty, trust, the sharing of dreams and, at times, fears. It’s about bringing out the best in each other. Incidentally, Gareth actually saved me from drowning three years before I actually ever met him, so our relationship is pretty serendipitous. I value it second only to my wife, Heidi.
#OpenAfricaMag: Why is the Joe Public group still independent? Why haven’t you done a deal with one of the big internationals?
We sold our original Take-Away model to FCB America back in 2001. Our vision was to take our very revolutionary model global. As it turned out, the deal on their side was more bottom-line motivated and opposed our actual vision. For eight years, we were under the quarterly whip of chasing numbers. And when you chase the bottom line, you lose focus on what we actually should focus on: writing cracking positioning lines that differentiate brands in market. We simply had no control over what we set out to do in the first place. It was an amazing lesson learned early on, and the hard way. As they say, you learn the most from your mistakes. It showed us that, in order to manifest your dreams, you have to remain firmly in control of your destiny. And the only way to achieve this was through our own independence. We fought for three years to buy our business back and, on 26 February 2009, we finally put pen to paper and restarted Joe Public from scratch. We were heavily in debt, with a handful of people and a couple of loyal clients. Given the journey and the lessons, there’s a strong reason behind our fierce independence. Incidentally, through independent thinking, today we actually have a Joe Public Take-Away that is cooking up a storm in Amsterdam!
#OpenAfricaMag: You’ve spawned a lot of ‘startups’ under the Joe Public brand umbrella [Shift.Ignite.Engage.]. Why? Do you own all new Joe Public agencies outright — what’s the business model behind them?
We believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and the importance that entrepreneurs can make to the economy of our country and our continent. How else do you ever close the poverty gap? But Joe Public United is also a meritocracy. Our model is simple. If you want to build sustainably, build from the bottom up. So all our ‘startups’ started with one or two key partners, each who started with a small equity in their own business. Over time, and based on input and individual drive, this equity grows just like any investment should. We currently have 10 other shareholders across our group outside of Gareth and myself, at various levels — this excludes our staff trust. So you can see, aligned to the purpose of our business, that the growth of our brand supports the growth of our people towards contributing to the growth of our country.
Another reason that we are building our group as a Joe Public United entity is in order to offer our clients the best integrated offering in the market. It would be an oversell to say we are there yet, as our digital offering, Connect, is just on a year in the making; Ignite is four years young; and Engage, our PR company, is three years old. But all three are co-owned and managed by absolutely the ‘best of breed’. We worked very hard to get this right in order to offer our clients the best across all platforms available to communication. Although we are building the plane as we are flying it (as you do when growing a business), we are making massive strides in improving our integrated offering, daily. We also see the bigger picture as all various specialist agencies being United around one strategic core, which will include both brand and media thinking.
#OpenAfricaMag: How have you managed your expansion into Africa? What business model are you using for this? What are you learning about the continent, yourselves, how to do business successfully?
First, the only reason for us to grow into Africa would be to assist in our clients’ growth. However, having not had clients with a strong focus on Africa yet, we had to be proactive in this matter. Let’s face it, it is the next frontier, once you have majority market share in South Africa. In the interim, we have formed alliances with independent agencies in nine African markets. But our actual strategy is to have 100% branded Joe Public Agencies across Africa. No other group has managed to get this right. Again, this approach is key when you really put branding and consistency first — both for our clients’ brands and for our own. One brand with one purpose and one set of values means a more single-minded and consistent approach. And simplicity and focus [are] what is most needed in communication today. So to this end, similarly to our model in SA, we have started three Joe Public Agencies in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, from the ground up, with more to come in future.
#OpenAfricaMag: You now have a R135m rand agency in terms of revenue. How has managing the agency changed over the years?
We have the foundations of a solid business in place, and we are a very long way from where we started back in 1998. However, we are very, very far from where we want to be. Advertising can play such an important role on so many levels. It can do much more than just drive the purchase of products. It can shape beliefs and opinions. It can counter negativity with positivity. It can create meaning, dreams and ambitions. It truly can inspire, when done right. Look at what advertising has done for the Apple and Nike brands. And look how those brands influence lives. And in order to create massive impact, you need scale. So we are interested in being a larger-scale business, because we want to influence large-scale change on many levels. But with growth comes change, just like a child who grows through being a teenager into adulthood. Joe is now about to step into adulthood, and it is time for us to step into the next level of leadership and play our role in the fight against mediocrity in our industry. The good fight for the thing that matters most: creativity.
Re: managing the growth of the business, I have found that, when you are navigating the storms encountered through growth of a business, the challenges it throws at you, compounded by our economic climate and a world struggling to deal with lack of time, that nothing helps more than a strong rudder for direction: Purpose. Our business is very clear on our reason for being. We exist to serve the growth of our clients, the growth of our people and the growth of our country. This deep belief in why we do what we do drives our values, our vision, our daily mission — which in total makes up our culture. Our Purpose gives us the clarity to circumnavigate all challenges.
#OpenAfricaMag: What are the challenges that scale brings?
First, people. People are the lifeblood of business but we as people are also extremely complex. We have invested, and continue to invest, in ways of unlocking maximum potential in our human resource. Secondly, quality of product. With scale, lack of quality can creep in and, since our products are bespoke solutions, it’s even more difficult. Process and systems are usually a solution, but with this comes the danger of over-processing creative solutions. So: balance. I think that, with larger scale, there’s also the pitfall that you may go after business that’s not really suited to your culture for the sake of revenue. It is extremely important to be clear on what you want and the creative solution, then become focused on finding like-minded clients.
#OpenAfricaMag: I’ve been watching your work over the past couple of years, and it is consistently good. When I say good I mean both in terms of the creative and execution, but particularly in terms of what it does for the client and the brand category. [Jet is a great example of this.] How do you manage to drive this consistency — to get the people that work for you to be ‘continually on’?
I smile inwardly at this, because ‘good’ is always the enemy of ‘great’. Yes, I would agree that we have done some really good work compared to the majority of what is out there. We have at times done some really great work, work that resulted in great returns for our clients. But I just feel we have so much more to give, hence I feel we are still at the start. Our next challenge as a business is to produce more great work. Again, to manage a higher level of consistency in output, you need a high level of belief in a quality product. And this takes severe focus. That’s where strong purpose, values and vision play such a role towards creating clarity for all your people.
#OpenAfricaMag: Creating meaning has been really important to you. How have you imbued this in your business? Advertising can be a shallow ‘Mad Men-ish’ enterprise. How have you sought to craft work with meaning, and what difference has this made to your business?
Again, it comes back to servant leadership. Being in business to serve others, rather than serving just yourself. When you really wake up to serve the growth of your clients, you start to think differently. But then, advertising can also be used to serve people, and not just to sell to them. There’s so much evidence globally since 2011 that work of greater meaning creates more sales. And this is aligned with what we strive to do. Current examples in the market that stand testament to this would be our Valentine’s campaign for Jet (great sales, by the way), our Nedbank Campaign, the new one for McCain that just launched, thanking moms for the little things they do. We will always aim to use marketing to bring more value to market than just focus on ‘product intrinsic’.
#OpenAfricaMag: Any final comments?
I think that, as business leaders across all industries, it is our duty to step up to the plate and assist with the positive transformation of our country. If I see the complexities of running a small business of 180 people, imagine the challenges our government faces to run a business of 58m people. We are so fast to point a finger. I used to be one of those, but I have decided rather to take charge. It’s takes more energy to blame others than it takes to accept responsibility. I believe that our country has the potential to be a shining example to the world, if we all step up to the plate of responsibility.
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